Obsessed With Numbers in an Industry of Words

In a never-ending quest for growth, publishers have turned to Google Analytics, Chartbeat, and other tools that promise to provide a sense of what readers want. But at what cost?

When Marie Solis started her job at Newsweek in October of 2017, she was glad to have a full-time position at a time when many journalists were being forced out of the industry. She wasn’t under any illusions as to what the job entailed: She was told, before she accepted it, that each writer had a traffic goal of a million clicks per month. It sounded like a lot to her, but everyone made it, no problem, she was told — and there was even a bonus for those who surpassed the target.

Solis quickly learned that Newsweek was obsessed with SEO, or search engine optimization.1 Incoming writers were made to attend workshops on how to get their stories to rank higher in search engine results. Editors would rewrite headlines to be more SEO-friendly, often making them intentionally controversial; junior reporters, whose names were on the byline, bore the brunt of the backlash. Solis didn’t often achieve the traffic goal, so she was pulled back into compulsory training — teaching the same material as the first workshop she’d taken — as if that was “the magic solution,” she says. Solis started scheduling interviews with sources in the middle of those hour-long meetings to get out of them early.

“The logic of SEO is, in many cases, diametrically opposed to quality journalism,” Solis says. It prioritizes stories people are looking for, but not the stories people should read, she believes, as it relies on chasing topics that are already trending online. SEO is one of the more visible products of a larger issue: “It really sucks to think that your career has been shaped by these tech giants and these platforms that news sites have made themselves beholden to,” Solis says.

Over the last decade, publications have grown to rely on platforms like Google and Facebook for web traffic, and a number of media executives have become obsessed with metrics. More recently, media companies have realized that subscribers could be a more durable source of support, but their leaders know you can’t convert visitors into subscribers without first acquiring those visitors — and only a percentage of them will eventually subscribe, leading even niche publishers to reach for constant growth.

In September of last year, the Sacramento Bee Guild criticized this approach in an open letter to McClatchy, their paper’s parent company, during negotiations over a contract provision that would tie journalists’ pay to metrics. “The metrics [McClatchy] uses to gauge a story’s performance change often…. The company’s proposal would impede evolution by holding us to measures that quickly become outdated,” the Guild wrote. “McClatchy has repeatedly failed to show how these goals are calculated. They’ve given no evidence why this proposal would make a more sustainable local company.”

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Metrics have always been a part of journalism, as it is, for the most part, a business. In the print-only era, sales were the primary metric: audience data was typically segmented by geography, and that was for the basis of selling advertising. This ad-based model has not changed much since; if anything, it’s become less nuanced for some of the biggest digital publishers. While data is more readily available today, and publishers can segment and target their audience in a variety of ways, in the simplest terms, many online advertisers pay based on the number of times an ad is shown (known as impressions). This leaves outlets trying to get as many eyeballs on a page, by any means, to bolster their revenue.

While the more prominent and reputable legacy publications have realized that prioritizing clicks alone erodes reader trust, many on the fringe game metrics to ensure their survival, with some adopting more aggressive methods than others. A number of publications, in addition to Newsweek, set difficult-to-reach traffic quotas for staff and offer bonuses for exceeding them: The Epoch Times (the free Chinese newspaper affiliated with the Falun Gong cult) hired Steven Klett as a political reporter for $2,500 a month in 2016, with a target of 100,000 weekly hits and bonuses for anything more, as reported by Oscar Schwartz in the Atavist. Others constantly remind writers of their metrics as a motivational tool, or as information they hope will push writers to replicate past stories’ reach: The Independent, one of Britain’s bigger newspapers, has Chartbeat2 displayed on TV screens in its newsroom; Who What Wear’s site report is sent to the whole editorial team — writers are shown their own numbers.

Mastering metrics has built empires. BuzzFeed finalized its purchase of HuffPost seven months ago, and famously uses every digital strategy available to it, from SEO-clickbait to viral YouTube channels to Facebook quizzes. But even for digital-native publications, tailoring content to algorithms that change with little notice can be daunting — and disastrous. In 2013, Facebook added articles to newsfeeds, especially on mobile devices, saying it wanted to promote “high-quality articles” over “meme photos.” Over the next few years, as pages used more tantalizing headlines or posted questions to garner likes (“LIKE if you’re an Aries”), Facebook would strike them down. In June of 2014, the pivot to video began, prioritizing short clips over articles. To keep up, BuzzFeed (and other online-native publications of the time) continually tinkered to suit Facebook’s latest direction, laying off workers and building up new departments in the process.

In 2014, BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti and publisher Dao Nguyen claimed to Wired that they weren’t afraid of Facebook or Twitter flipping the algorithms on them again; back then, both social networks cited BuzzFeed as an example of a publisher doing the right things. Peretti argued BuzzFeed was good for Facebook: they supplied content for the social media platform. “There’s a lot of precedent of distribution companies and content companies building businesses together,” Peretti said. This was when Facebook was still avidly promoting content from brands, and before the Great Purge of 2018, when the platform shifted direction and decided to prioritize posts from Facebook friends instead of news organizations, effectively killing organic distribution for outlets.

This year, Facebook is co-opting news for itself: the platform is working with United Kingdom-based outlets for its 2021 Facebook News initiative, with partners including well-known media entities running the political gamut, from The Daily Mail to The Guardian, as well as smaller, regional players, like the Yorkshire Post. Following a regulatory battle with the government, which tried to force Facebook and Google into commercial deals with news organizations, it is doing the same in Australia. (At one point, Australians weren’t even able to post links to news stories by Australian media.)

The deal will pay publishers for content, at least temporarily. Facebook also claims it will support publishers in finding new audiences, expanding their advertising and subscription sources. Facebook further claims 95 percent of the traffic it brings to these outlets will come from new readers. It has expanded Facebook News to Germany recently, and says it will roll out the service in France later this year.

This is not the first time Facebook has tried to “help” media in recent history: Its Journalism Project, launched in 2017, offered grants and training to publications, ranging from the giants — the New York Times and Washington Post — to New Zealand online-only news publication The Spinoff (funding its move to shift contributions from readers to in-house staff members) and regional French newspaper company Groupe Centre France (allowing the publisher to develop a chatbot). These initiatives have helped these companies survive but do little to address what caused their biggest problems in the first place: that online platforms snatched up advertising dollars and took control of traffic flows.

Marie Solis’ Newsweek job was her second in media. She initially moved to New York City in November of 2015 after landing a job at Mic as a general assignment reporter. She was responsible for three or four posts a day, and pitched her editors other stories, but with that volume, there was always a substantial amount of news aggregation. Still, the news desk did encourage reported pieces, and reporters were given days off of aggregation duty to focus on their features.

Anna Swartz started at Mic on the same day as Solis, but on the newswire desk, which was separate from Solis’ news desk. In a naming contortion, the newswire desk wasn’t focused on news; it was all about creating viral stories.

Having a division like this at Mic was an intentional business decision, but Swartz “never felt they were totally willing to be upfront about the focus.” The goal was to try to generate big hits — virality was a topic Mic tried to teach its reporters about — but Swartz felt the company lacked a sense of mastery about it. At that time, Mic’s understanding of what people favored came from reverse-engineering, mainly by replicating proven-viral story styles with attention-grabbing headlines like “In 1 Tweet, J.K. Rowling Gave Gay Muggles the Best Reason Yet to Love Her,” “9 People Who Make Tax Evasion Look Sexy,” and “Avocado Can Be Substituted for Butter to Make the Most Delicious Cake Ever.” Company seminars taught reporters how to write clickbait, specifically how to leave a curiosity gap in headlines to create intrigue.

The separation of news and newswire did not last long: In early 2017, after being shunted to and from now-shuttered Mic-owned women’s vertical The Slay, Solis found herself working alongside Swartz on the now-merged desk. They would choose their quota of stories from a Google Docs list of headlines with search-engine-optimized words next to them, which they would incorporate into their copy. That doc was put together by an editor whose sole job was to look at Google Analytics, then assemble headlines from what was trending for the reporters to complete. “These were all super random topics that were not even necessarily related to what was happening in the news that day,” Solis says. Reporters were simply expected to clear the list.

At that time, going viral organically was still commonplace; Mic’s heavy reliance on SEO and trending stories still produced some hits. But numbers were declining quickly, as algorithms and platform decisions reduced the traffic generated from both viral and non-viral stories. Maxwell Strachan, in HuffPost, reported that Mic’s unique visitors dropped from 21.5 million in December of 2015 to 10.5 million in December of 2016, and almost halved again to 6.1 million in December of 2017.

Mic’s earliest viral hits had come largely from Facebook, before the platform had started cracking down on clickbait. Mic changed its company structure to follow Facebook’s guidance by prioritizing video after these early successes, which ultimately led to its downfall. “I remember seeing the video team just expand exponentially over my time [at Mic],” Solis says. “When we started ... they were in a corner of the office ... by the end of my time there, we were in a much larger office in the World Trade Center and the video team took up half of the floor.” The video department kept occupying more space, eventually bordering Solis’ desk.

This shift precipitated others: editors began only referring to super-viral videos when they talked about “big wins”; Mic moved some reporters into script-writing, telling them that they were shifting to another team. When Solis was laid off in August of 2017, she was told the company was moving in a new direction, devoting more resources to video. A year later, court documents would be unsealed showing Facebook knew it was inflating metrics, including video views, from 150 to 900 percent.

“Looking back,” Swartz says, “it did seem to be a mistake to put so much emphasis into Facebook when it was so out of our control.” Swartz stayed on a year longer than Solis.

 “I had been there long enough to see the cycles,” she says. Snapchat-dedicated staffers had come and gone; near the end of her tenure, she worked on content for Google Stamp — Google’s unlaunched facsimile of Snapchat. She stayed at Mic because she didn’t know what else she wanted to do, and because “there were just so few jobs.” At the end of her time there, Mic was also exploring newsletters. When she was notified about the meeting where she was likely going to be laid off, she wasn’t sure if she should still write her daily newsletter. She didn’t.

Mic was just one of many outlets that got played chasing metrics. It had laid off the reporters who were writing articles in favor of video production, then, suddenly, video didn’t justify the investment. To cut costs, the video departments were emptied out too. Mic still exists today, with millions of followers on social platforms still attached from its heyday, and is about to launch several new written columns.

While start-up media outlets were scrambling after algorithmic success, similar changes were happening at legacy companies. At Hearst, Troy Young was hired as president of digital media in May of 2013 and, with abhorrent behavior, as reported by Benjamin Wallace for New York magazine, he immediately got busy rearranging Hearst’s inner workings. Young promised he would bring commercial success and longevity to the publishing stalwart by merging all the digital teams into one and running them separately from their equivalent print magazines. Young and his deputy, Kate Lewis, were clearly inexperienced in the magazine world, but did increase digital revenues and cut costs.

When a screen displaying Chartbeat statistics was brought into former Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles’ office at the direction of Young’s department, she was struck by the obsession with how technology was going to revolutionize Hearst’s magazines. “I remember the tremendous excitement with which the head of digital came roaring into my office,” she says. Coles says Hearst executives thought looking at Chartbeat would be like magic, that it would generate the next trendy idea. Coles vehemently distrusts this notion, especially for print editors, who need to think of what may remain poignant and relevant several months in advance.

Coles says that Chartbeat itself was not that useful a tool: Based on what it was telling her, back when she was at Cosmo, women wouldn’t read stories about careers or fashion, which to her seemed false. “I’m a huge believer in data,” she says, “but it doesn’t always help you create new things.” When Chartbeat was introduced, it was coupled, Coles says, with “a fundamental lack of understanding of what good content is.” (Chartbeat has since rebranded itself as a tool for helping keep readers on a site instead of guiding newsroom decisions.)

At the same time Hearst was trying to game the system for short-term gains, Stella Bugbee (who has since moved to the New York Times to head its Style section) was rebuilding New York magazine’s The Cut, introducing politics, motherhood, and careers content, and relaunching its website. She tripled The Cut’s staff, more than tripled its unique visitors, increased its advertising revenue every year, and introduced brand partnerships.

“My feeling is everything is data,” Bugbee says, adding that her team definitely used it but they didn’t make “key editorial decisions necessarily on data alone.” She says she avoided quotas, but used the metrics on certain stories to learn about their audience. Instead of the crude targets for pageviews, she asked narrower questions from New York magazine’s data scientists: whether one area of coverage was performing better than others; whether people actually read the 5,000-word stories; how many people were accessing the site on their phones.

“I do think,” Bugbee says, “it has hurt journalism overall, the way we’ve been driven by metrics over the last decade. ... I don’t think it’s been an overall net positive.” She disapproves of publications getting their junior writers to write SEO posts — “that’s not what you want to do to train the new generation of journalism.” When I ask her about what she knows of the Hearst operation — she was one of the people considered for the Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief position when Glenda Bailey resigned in 2020 — she coyly says, “Hearst has been playing some interesting games.”

Chasing social media metrics isn’t confined to newsrooms, Bugbee notes: As humans, we seek out affirmation, whether that’s instant feedback from Twitter or likes when we post thirst traps on Instagram. When media companies think they can make their decisions solely off the numbers, metrics become dangerous. “I think it takes a really subtle hand to look at the data and interpret it meaningfully,” she says. “Anyone who tells you it’s an exact science is full of it.”

Many journalists (including those working on the business and finance beats) identify as creative people; some will tell you they went into journalism because they didn’t like math. Half of the journalists at a business newspaper I worked at needed a website to calculate percentage changes. Add to this the lack of consensus on what “audience engagement” actually is or what metrics actually signify, the fact that traffic is being dictated by algorithms, and the rise of AI and machine learning, and you get an industry in which the people who will be screwed over are those who don’t understand data. It would be better if data were inherently evil, because then we could all just rule it out. The nefariousness only comes from the people who misuse it.

Perhaps a lot is already lost in the language used: “Content” that needs to be “optimized.” SEO is so ubiquitous an abbreviation the letters have melded into a singular word — as in, “SEO-optimized.” “Engagement” is a catch-all for everything from thoughtful quote-retweets to the “likes” double-tapped out while we’re watching a TV show on another screen.

Dedicating a newsroom’s resources to a game where the rules and the board are constantly being redrawn by another, much more powerful entity is like trading shares without any edge: It’s r/WallStBets vs. Wall Street’s moneyed and influential hedge funds. When a media outlet chases clicks, it ties its own success to the algorithms powering Google, Facebook, or any other consumer tech company. The danger lies not just in the control these companies exercise over the flow of information to readers, but also in the possibility that they can lie about performance: The “pivot to video” saw journalists getting laid off in favor of bolstering video teams, chasing numbers that turned out to be a mirage.

“You’re always serving the people who give you their money,” Defector co-founder Kelsey McKinney says. Defector is subscriber-funded, after its staff split from Deadspin. Its independence means that, in addition to its usual sports coverage, it can publish a piece on the staff’s favorite birds; there is no need to hit certain numbers to satisfy advertisers. “For us,” McKinney says, “what’s more interesting and important is what we want to cover, and the assumption a reader is smart enough to tell us if they hate what we’re doing.”

Metrics are already ingrained in our writing. The “most read” sections on websites, trending topics on Twitter, headline testing — they make sense. It’s when publications start grasping for relevance in an attempt to inflate their numbers that they are marked for a race to the bottom — when managers start deciding crude, singular measures determine not only performance, but worth. There is ambivalent comfort in the knowledge that these measures will rarely produce anything novel. There is a significant element of unpredictability in what makes a good, interesting, and influential story; that unpredictability may be what saves this industry.

The Postscript’s feature stories, profiles and how-to guides, which aim to help those working in and on journalism to better understand the industry and improve their craft, and to make smarter news consumers of the rest of us, come from editorial partnerships or are directly funded by our subscribers.

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Meet: About the Author

Brian Ng is a writer, originally from Aotearoa–New Zealand, currently living in Te Awa Kairangi–Lower Hutt.

Read: Footnotes

1

SEO, which stands for search engine optimization, is a method by which content publishers (whether that’s media, blogs, or company marketing) try to drive traffic to their websites through search engines (namely, Google). This is done by reverse engineering Google’s algorithm, and finding what keywords and exact phrases people are searching at any given moment. As a result, publishers chasing SEO generally run after the news cycle rather than drive it, and are constantly updating evergreen content “to establish authority.”

2

A tool popular in digital newsrooms that tracks a variety of statistics, including pageviews, traffic sources, and the duration of time a reader spends on a page — measures supposedly indicative of the success of stories.